Welcome to Canada, where the little guy loses

TORONTO, Canada — Professional hockey players are used to being transformed from heroes to bums depending on their performance in a game. Rarely, however, do they attract the fury of even those who care little about the sport.

It happened in Canada last week when news broke that players on two teams — the Calgary Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs — jumped to the front of the line to be vaccinated against swine flu.

The news came as lineups reserved for high-risk groups stretched around city blocks. That meant that highly paid athletes had jumped ahead of pregnant women, children below the age of 6, and people with chronic illnesses, many of whom had waited up to seven hours at immunization clinics. The preferential treatment also came as some clinics were forced to shut down because they ran out of vaccine. (Also last week, in Ukraine, which is gripped by a swine flu pandemic and in the throes of election leadup, H1N1 became fodder for the biggest political football match to date.)

As outrage grew in Canada, the players and coaches for the most part ducked the media. But a few tried to justify the move.

John Mitchell, who plays center for the Leafs, insisted that pro athletes are at a higher risk of contracting bugs.

“We go from city to city and rink to rink,” Mitchell told reporters. “There's people that might be an avid fan who doesn't want to miss a game even though he's feeling a little sick. They come to the rink. You never know what will happen from there. We have every bit of a chance of catching it as everybody else, maybe a little bit more.”

By the time Mitchell voiced his defense, a pattern had emerged. It was learned that the board of governors of seven Toronto hospitals — often stacked with the well-heeled — had also jumped the long queues and received the H1N1 vaccine. And, a private Toronto clinic that serves executives of corporations who each pay $2,300 to become clients had received 3,000 doses of the scarce vaccine.

Similar debate erupted south of the border when Wall Street heavy weights like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup were given doses of swine flu vaccine. A Goldman Sachs spokesperson insisted the shots would be given only to high-risk employees.

In Canada, provincial health ministers in Alberta and Ontario have vowed investigations. Two health bureaucrats in Alberta were fired for apparently having approved the preferential treatment given the Calgary Flames. Still, the incidents confirmed what every school child knows: The big wheels get the grease.

Said Sharleen Stewart, president of a union that represents Ontario health care workers: “What we are seeing evokes scenes from the Titanic, the privileged pushing to the front and leaving vulnerable women and children to a chilling fate.”

What Stewart sees as a question of social justice erupted while residents in Toronto debated a matter that had shades of vigilante justice.

It involved Wang (David) Chen, a grocer in the city’s bustling Chinatown district downtown. The 35-year-old father of two children has become a cause celebre among storeowners. His fate has also convinced many that the law is an ass.

The story began last May, when Chen’s security camera caught serial shoplifter Anthony Bennett stealing $60 worth of plants displayed on the sidewalk of Chen’s Lucky Moose supermarket.

An hour later, Chen spotted Bennett returning to the scene of the crime, and with the help of two employees, chased him down. They tied him up, threw him in the back of a delivery van and called police.

Bennett, a crack addict with a long list of prior convictions, was charged with shoplifting. Then came the twist: Chen and his employees were charged with assault, kidnapping, unlawful confinement and carrying concealed weapons. (The weapons in question were box cutters, a tool of the trade for those working in grocery stores.)

Chinatown shopkeepers, many of whom claimed to be victims of Bennett in the past, were outraged. Within weeks, they had raised thousands of dollars for Chen’s legal defense.

Under Canada’s Criminal Code, citizens’ arrests are permitted only when a criminal is caught in the act. Chen instead caught Bennett an hour later. But many weren’t interested in the finer points of the law. Neither were they inclined to consider scenarios the law hopes to prevent — vigilante justice, or citizens getting killed if the crook they chase down is armed with a knife or gun. All they saw was a hardworking storeowner who had the book thrown at him for catching a thief.

It got worse. Bennett pleaded guilty to stealing 10 plants from Chen’s store. But his sentence was reduced from 90 to 30 days in jail because he agreed to testify against Chen. When that legal nugget became known, the sound of cerebral fuses popping could be heard across the city.

Last week, prosecutors dropped two of the toughest charges against Chen — kidnapping and concealing a weapon. With the only indictable offense withdrawn — kidnapping — Chen now faces trial by judge alone rather than by jury. A jury, many assume, would have found him innocent in a heartbeat.

He faces a maximum two years in jail and has rejected plea bargain offers of lesser sentences in return for a guilty plea.

“In China, if this happened … the thief would be on trial, not the storeowner,” Chen told the Toronto Star newspaper.

There’s not much that connects Chen with swine flu vaccine privileges, except that in both cases, the little guys seems to end up at the bottom.